Alan Morrison 

on

John Seed's

Brandon Pithouse

Recollections of the Durham Coalfield

 

(Smokestack Books, 2016)

120pp

 

Coal Consciousness

Brandon Pithouse

Poetry as social document is something often integral to many of the collections and long poems published by Smokestack, but John Seed’s Brandon Pithouse, subtitled Recollections of the Durham Coalfield, is one of the most explicit poetic montages-cum-social document of the Smokestack canon. It is a very visual, filmic work, having something in common with the filmic poetry of W.H. Auden (Coal Face; Night Mail et al), Joseph Macleod (Script from Norway), and Tony Harrison (Gaze of the Gorgon; Prometheus et al), as well as with the more montage radio ballad form of broadcast oral history pioneered and exemplified by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker, particularly The Big Hewer (1961), which was about the miners of the Northumberland, Durham, South Wales and East Midlands coalfields.

 

The book's cover is also worthy of note with its reproduction of a photographic cover of a magazine called COAL, priced 4D, June 1947 issue –what’s striking to the eye is when looking at the cover the first thing that strikes the eye is the word COAL writ in large white capitals against burnt orange as the logo of the magazine inset and then only afterwards one takes note of the book's title, and its author's name underneath. This trick on the eye seems to echo the authorial humility of the work inside.

 

It may or may not have been helpful, depending on one’s opinion, for Seed’s elucidation of the book’s purpose and conscious architecture to have appeared as a Foreword at the beginning of the book rather than as a Postscript at the back. That said, I read through and reviewed the book before reading the Postscript, hence my architectonic take on its literary form mutates and alternates throughout my review (I discuss his Postscript at the end of this review).

 

Brandon Pithouse is split into 25 sections. There is a scriptural feel to the spare pared-down opening to what one presumes to be a long poem:

 

Crunch of icy tyre-tracks underfoot

Daylight already old

 

Looking beyond the visible beyond

Brandon Pithouse

Ragpath Drift

 

This continues onto a second page, this time the text is right-justified:

 

in short breeches

low shoes and

cotton skull-cap

 

swinging his

5 lb pick while

sweat runs white

down black cheeks

 

always in peril

of gas or

fall of stone

or sudden flood or

 

whoever he is

 

An absence of punctuation means caesuras do the breath-work in this stripped-down but imagistically evocative triplet of tercets:

 

grandmother sent me a good door-string

six farthing candles for bait

some of her best currant bread

 

bait poke over my shoulder

candle-box in my pocket through darkness

along the black wagon-way up

 

past the pit-pond by the pick shop to the pit-heap

clanking of engines creaking pulleys overhead

hoarse voices of men calling answering

 

The use of alliteration in those lines is particularly striking. The rather breathless unpunctuated lines almost mimic the laboured breathing of being down the pits, while the omission of the definitive article in the first line reinforces this:

 

at the pit’s-mouth banksman calling down the shaft

hewers coming up two by two or three by six or

anyhow as the rope brought them

 

men emptying corves

boys wailing rough coals

discarding stones and slates

long line of sheds the screens

 

Seed deftly employs various poetic forms and sometimes ruptures into poetic prose in a manner reminiscent of David Jones (his In Parenthesis):

 

Low Main seam (coal 20 inches thick) – 57ft. from the surface

Hutton seam (coal 32 inches thick) – 157ft. from the surface

Harvey seam (coal 24 inches thick) – 312ft. from the surface

Busty seam (coal 48 inches thick) – 418ft. from the surface

Brockwell seam (coal 34 inches thick) – 522ft. from the surface

 

one minute to descend by cage

five hundred and thirty seven concrete steps to the Busty

ten minutes carrying an eight-pound electric lamp tokens shot

powder sharp picks

 

Describing the physical reality of the pit shaft and mine Seed speaks as plainly as possible but yet there is something poetic in his phrases: ‘strong pillars of coal to support the roof’ and ‘an immense number of dark passages’. This is proletarian poetry in the truest sense; its language is sinuous, industrial, utilitarian, as is its plentiful nomenclature:

 

Miners are hewers

stone-sinkers putters enginemen timber-drawers shot-firers

waste-men horse-keepers and drivers underground …

 

And banksmen masons fitters joiners sawyers blacksmiths

boilersmiths horse-shoers plumbers saddlers painters

electricians lamp-repairers platelayers smiths’ strikers winding

enginemen engine drivers hauliers ostlers carters…

 

Then there are little poetic eruptions as in this pictorial aside:

 

You walk into any pit house ten o’ clock at night

find the same thing

red hot fire

a tired-looking woman

heavy damp clothes hanging up

all over the place

 

With its irregular lines, tilt towards prose, unpunctuated lines and industrial imagery, one is instantly reminded of the rustbelt poetry of American blue collar poet Fred Voss. There’s a sense of poetry as Notes:

 

Bromdun Bramdom Brampdon Brandon

1871: 1926 inhabitants 10 streets 281 houses

 

‘miserable huts’ for families one small room

ladder to the unceiled attic

 

The next stanza is basically a haiku:

 

floors of square quarls

iron boiler one side of the fireplace

round oven the other

 

Then we get some social history:

 

still collecting water from rain barrels from springs in the fields

scores of bee-hive coke ovens south of the pit

Irish housed in Railway and South Streets ‘Little Ireland’

 

For those who like their poetry pared-down, spare and to the point, John Seed’s at times staccato verse will meet their appreciation:

 

two‐up two‐down cottages

each brick stamped with the name of the colliery company

 

cold water tap in the pantry

backyard the tin bath

 

wood back gate the goal

and next to the coalhouse the ash-pit

 

lav ash-midden netty

whitewashed walls and tied with string

 

squares of newspaper or occasionally

soft paper wrappings from oranges

 

Seed is excellent at using sense impressions, domestic images and unobtrusive alliteration to build up effects:

 

Wash day the devil’s birthday

living room reeking with steam

dodging damp vests drawers shirts sheets pillow-cases

drying pegged out across the

front of the fire place

dim light of an oil-lamp or candle

 

Brandon Pithouse is littered with potted social histories:

 

sinkers at Blackhall in 1909

for their wives and families

 

built huts out of

packing cases on the beach banks

 

at Blackhall Rocks there were still

families of pitmen in the 1930s

 

Irish immigrants tin miners

from Cornwall among them

 

Sometimes one wishes incidental vignettes weren’t quite so pithily expressed:

 

Going in-bye to his work

some men in front of him

got into a refuge hole to

let a set of tubs pass

but he went on

mind elsewhere

hit

and died the same day

 

We get some facts and figures:

 

Coalminers as % of occupied males in County Durham

1841 16.1

1851 21.1

1861 20.8

1871 17.1

1881 24.3

1891 25.0

1901 26.0

1911 33.4

 

Next we get what appear to be anecdotes from various miners emphasizing that Seed’s work is very much oral history as poetry. One Dick Morris talks of how fathers took their sons down the pits as kids to get them ‘acclimatised/ the inevitable way of life’. Another called William Cowburn confesses ‘but then I’m not frightened to admit/ I was terrified when I went down the pit’. These appear to be transcripts sculpted into poems:

 

I asked to go into the pit

to get away from school

 

I would go to school now

if I could be allowed

 

The constant shift in poetic form helps to keep up the momentum of the poem and avoid it stalling, and the shifts from lyrical poetry to prose is strongly reminiscent of David Jones’ In Parenthesis. There’s much bittersweet wit and irony in the trope: ‘In winter time the hours are harder and when we/ come home we are fit enough to go to bed’. The narrator, who may or may not be Seed himself (?), or a relative of Seed’s (?), mentions, ominously, how he escaped the coal pit: ‘I left to join the/ army goodbye to Wingate pit’. This narrator is a knowledge-hungry miner, perhaps an autodidact: ‘15 hours out of the house every day I go to school at night/ we’re in school two hours I hurt myself very sore to get/ scholarship’.

 

A miner in parentheses called James Agee explains how only objects, the tangible, things you can touch, taste and smell sum up the mining life far better than any writing:

 

If I could do it I’d do no writing at all here. It would be

photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of

cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and

iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement.

 

This poem is almost like a kind of séance with the ghosts of miners as the time seems to shift:

 

First task when he reports for work at midnight

collect a token he strings round his neck

identification in case of accident every day

three miners are killed (1939)

every day he collects his safety lamp his token

 

There’s a fascinating description of the mineshaft: ‘The shaft is a perpendicular drift, sometimes made semielliptical/ at the mouth by means of boards’. Coal mining vernacular is quite fascinating:

 

Three raps: man riding

Two raps: start

One rap: stop.

 

When the chummens had taken the place of the fullens and the cage

had been rapped away the winderman would lift the cage off the keps

 

I’ve no idea what ‘chummens’, ‘fullens’, ‘winderman’ or ‘keps’ mean –perhaps Durham dialect?– but they all sound wonderful. The coal mine is clearly a place of considerable risk:

 

Nobody puts his helmet light on

in the cage you’d

blind each other you

drop down in the dark

 

--------------

 

The only means of ascending or descending the shaft was in a kibble

or loop

He came out of the workings to the shaft bottom and shouted

‘Bend away to bank’

Swinging up the shaft the spring hook at the end of the rope caught

an iron bunton which broke the hook and the loop and he dropped

486 feet to the bottom

 

At times the depictions of the perils of the pit are truly gruesome: ‘going down/ a hook of another rope caught him by the hough/ ripped off the skin of his leg like a stocking’. We then read of one Isaac Rickerby who ‘was crushed between the/ cage and the shaft timbers’ at Broomside Colliery, and another at Thornley Colliery. The names of some of the coal miner casualties are redacted with Xs. And at Haswell

 

           …The crab, a

sort of huge drum revolving horizontally, to which a rope was

attached, moved by a horse, was a very slow method of traction.

Some obstruction took place, and the corf, full of men, hung in the

shaft for an hour-and-a-half, exposed to a strong downward

current of air

 

it was 3 on a dark winter morning and nothing could be seen

Tak had!

 

Presumably ‘Tak had’ is Durham pronunciation for ‘Take heed’? I think ‘corf’ is here meant as a metal container. At times there is a real Joycean stream-of-consciousness in full flow:

 

and blue stone soft like when we were kids we used to write with

at school

when it got wet it buried you like the houses on the Isle of White

are sliding into the sea

in this band of stone are the fossils of the dinosaur we called it

blos stone or mall

 

And perhaps more explicitly in the following flourish which seems to almost lapse into word association:

 

sandstone strata sequence of Westphalian coal measures bands

of shale

steam coal house coal chinley coal gas coal claggy coal manufact -

uring coal sea coal bunker coal pan coal crow coal sooty coal

roondy coal coking coal cannel coal brown coal shaly coal parrot

coal beany coal

 

The alliteration in the following passage is very effective:

 

Old workings and air-ways where nobody was working so

quiet you could hear your own heart beating in the strata the

forms of a leaf or a fish in the stone the iron quartz pyrites

sparkling like gold

 

The following trope is rather puzzling geographically speaking: ‘some coalfaces were 6 miles out/ under the North Sea Bohemia’s coast’. Seed depicts the darkness all year round for the miner:

 

The darkness never changes. Seasons make no difference. Spring

and summer, autumn and winter, morning, noon, and night, are

all the same.

 

Coal and stone, stone and coal – above, around, beneath.

 

Seed then quotes from the Book of Job:

 

There is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture’s

eye hath not seen: The lion’s whelps have not trodden it, nor the

fierce lion passed by it.

(Job 28: 3, 7-8)

 

Indeed, this is a life lived in darkness: ‘they rarely saw daylight for six months of the year/ apart from Sundays the whole night’s rest lasting till daylight/ the one family dinner of the week’. And as for the climate, it’s always extremes, as Seed puts it most economically:

 

You do get

All sorts of temperatures

Down the mine sometimes

It’s cold as winter sometimes

Hot as hell

 

There is a sense of timelessness as time and dates shift –a macrocosmic oral history: ‘Winter of 1844 we had neither, food, shoes, nor light in our first/ shift’. Here, then, the term ‘shift’ takes on more than just one meaning. Are we eavesdropping on the memories of revenant coal miners?

 

The wagon-man, Tommy Dixon, visited me, and cheered me on

through the gloomy night; and when I wept for my mother, he

sang that nice little hymn,

 

‘In darkest shades if / Thou appear my dawning has begun’.

 

He also brought me some cake, and stuck a candle beside me.

 

We are left to imagine the grisly fate of a lad who hid some gunpowder ‘in a piece of gas piping which he had thrust down his/ trouser leg to hide it xxxx xxxx, when a spark from the lamp/ hanging on his belt fell into the open end of the pipe/ when a spark from the lamp/ hanging on his belt fell into the open end of the pipe’. Seed is deft at alliterative effects, as in the following trope:

 

Midges sometimes put out the candle.

The pit is choke full of black clocks creeping all about.

Nasty things they never bit me.

 

Some of the pastimes of miners down the pit seem distinctly macabre:

 

I often caught mice.

I took a stick and split it and fixed the mouse’s tail in it.

If I caught two or three I made them fight. They pull one

another’s noses off.

Sometimes I hung them with a horse’s hair.

The mice are numerous in the pit. They get at your bait-bags

and they get at the horse’s corn.

Cats breed sometimes in the pit and the young ones grow up

healthy.

Black clocks breed in the pit. I never meddled with them except

I could put my foot on them.

A great many midges came about when I had a candle.

 

‘Black clocks’ are a type of beetle. One of the miner-revenants appears to be a boy:

 

when the pits were idle I wandered

 

Houghton-le-Spring Hetton Lambton

Newbottle Shiney Row

Philadelphia Fence Houses Colliery Row Warden Haw

Copthill

 

every wood dene pond and whin-cover

was known to us in our search for

blackberries mushrooms cat-haws crab-apples nuts

 

not a bird’s nest in wall hedge or tree for miles around

escaped our vigilance

 

Remains of what some trapped miners had subsisted on were discovered:

 

many who escaped to the higher workings

must have subsisted for some time on

candles horse-flesh and horse-beans

 

part of a dead horse was found near…

 

The pits were sufficiently damp in some parts for fungus to sprout:

 

Mushrooms

grow in the pits

at the bottom of the props

and where the muck’s fallen

100 yards or more from the shaft

 

There are numerous tragic and often grisly accounts of the fates of miners:

 

Burnhope Colliery he

finished his shift

ravelling out-bye

along a new travelling way

passing the upcast shaft

there was a door he opened

and stepped into the shaft

and fell

to the bottom

 

Occasionally there are redactions and it’s not clear what they are concealing or protecting from public consumption, since in the following example the name of the killed miner is mentioned at the end:

 

xxxxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxxx carried away down by the rush of

coals. Xxx xxxxxx xxxxx xxx xxxxxxxxxxx xxx xxx xxxxx, xxx

xxx xxxxxxxx, William Robinson, was beyond hope

 

Seed uses deliberate repetitions of the manner of many miners’ demises to emphasize the terrible uniformity in the causes of death:

 

Crushed by tubs on engine plane Struck on head by horse

Crushed between wagons and wall Fall of stone Crushed by

tubs on engine plane Crushed by tubs on engine plane

Crushed by the cage starting as he was getting into it

Explosion of a shot Run over by four tubs of stone Head

crushed between tub and timbers Fall of stone Fall of coal

and stone Crushed on pulley wheel…

 

The anonymity of the casualties makes it all the more chilling. There’s a fascinating quote from one W. Stanley Jevons on the hazards of the Davy lamp:

 

‘It was supposed that George Stephenson and Sir H. Davy had

discovered a true safety lamp. But, in truth, this very ingenious

invention is like the compass that Sir Thomas More describes in

his Utopia as given to a distant people. It gave them such

confidence in navigation that they were ‘farther from care than

danger.’ No lamp has been made, or, perhaps, can be made, that

will prevent accidents when a feeder of gas is tapped, or a careless

miner opens his lamp, or a drop of water cracks a heated glass, or

a boy stumbles and breaks his lamp.’

 

It’s not entirely clear how much of Seed’s book is drawn from coal miner transcripts but the considerable employment of prose throughout suggests much of the work is drawn from such sources, though I might be wrong; it then occurs to me to skip to the back of the book and there sure enough is a Postscript by Seed which details his extensive use of transcripts and other sources throughout. In these senses, then, much of Brandon Pithouse can be classified as ‘found poetry’. Whether transcript prose or transcript poetry, it still makes for intriguing reading:

 

putting is sore work dragging the coal corves or tubs

using a harness called the ‘soames’

a chain passed between the legs hooked to an iron ring

attached to a

leather belt blisters as big as shillings and half-crown pieces

blisters of one day broken the next and the

girdle stuck to the wound crawling on hands and knees

dragging the coal through the tunnels from the workings to

the passages where pony putters could be used

dis thoo think we deserve to toil awl day in livin’ tombs?

 

That last line in dialect is a nicely evocative touch. We get a taste of Durham wit in some anecdotes and jokes included throughout –the following one is priceless:

 

Hangman to a murderer on the scaffold at Durham Gaol:

‘You can have a reprieve if you start work, putting at the drift.’

 

Condemned man: ‘Pull that lever.’

 

‘Putting at the drift’ obviously means to go down the pit –there’s a sense of synecdoche in the imagery of a lever used both for dropping the hatch for a hanging and for lowering the cage of miners into the pit. One George Hancock tells us:

 

I was 15 year old and nine month

when I started to hand-putt

and that is the worst job God ever created

shoving it behind a tub

 

And, ‘for Ralph Hawkins’:

 

Smash me heart marra

me puttin’s a’ done after his

first day down the pit

head in his hands

he told his mother he

wished he was 65

 

Gas is one of the perils of pit-life –the repetitions of ‘damp’ in the following passage is accumulatively effective:

 

Carbon monoxide is colourless odourless tasteless lighter than air

damps or foul airs kill insensibly

they are most in hot weather

infallible trial is by a dog and candles show it

in south winds colliers suffer from carbonic acid gas

white damp black damp and fire damp heavy sulphurous air not

fit for breath

black damp or stink could knock a man down

 

Some tropes are mini-poems, almost haiku:

 

Traces of gas in the dark

 

tiny little sparks in mid-air

or bubbling on the wet

black surfaces

 

In many respects Brandon Pithouse would work particularly well for radio as a work for voices very much along the lines of Ewan MacColl’s The Big Hewer (1961) as cited in my opening paragraph. The scriptural layout of parts of the text almost suggest this:

 

Jim Green

I’ve seen fellas who were deaf

stone deaf underground

and they would

tap

 

sound of knuckles tapping a surface

 

the roof

and they would tell you

if

it’s

safe

 

and if they said it wasn’t safe you better take notice of them

 

because them seem to know something you didn’t

 

We come upon what appears to be part of an 18th century transcript about a pit disaster:

 

and heard the blow, and see what it threw out of the pit, and

shatter’d about the Gins: There was one thing very strange in it,

as I was told, That a Youth of 15 or 16 Years of Age, was blown

up the Pit and Shaft, and carried by the blast about 40 Yards from

the shaft, the Corps was found all intire, save the back part of his

head, which was cut off, though the Shaft is sixty Fathoms deep,

which is an Argument of the mighty Force this Blast is of.

1705

 

This is actually a trail of 18th century transcripts reporting various pit disasters. We come upon another from 1708, one from ‘Lampton Colliery near Chester-le-Street, 1766’, a pit fire and explosion in 1806 and so on. On occasion Seed’s descriptions of these tragedies is more poetically engaged in terms of language and image:

 

Heworth morning of the 25th May 1812 about half past eleven

darkness like early twilight

inverted cone of black dust carried away on a strong west wind

falling a continued shower a mile and a half around

covered the roads so thickly

footsteps of passengers were strongly imprinted in it

 

clothes, tobacco-boxes, shoes, the only indexes by which they

could be recognised

 

Such descriptions are not for the faint-hearted and that Seed can wring poetry out of them is a tribute to his craftsmanship:

 

bodies in ghastly confusion: some like mummies, scorched dry

baked. One wanted its head, another an arm. The power of

the fire was visible upon them all; but its effects were

extremely various: some were almost torn to pieces, others

as if they had sunk down overpowered with sleep. Some

much burnt, but not much mangled. Others buried amongst

a confused wreck of broken brattices, trapdoors, trams, and

corves, with their legs broken, or their bodies otherwise

miserably scorched and lacerated.

 

The trope ‘as if they had sunk down overpowered with sleep’ is particularly powerful; as is the following lyrical passage, which, in its sparseness, is all the more potent:

 

From the position in which he was found

as if he’d been asleep

when the explosion happened

and never after

opened his eyes

 

That the tone and form of each anecdote varies goes in the work’s favour:

 

William Bell working in the pit morning of the disaster

Hebburn 1849 he was knocked down and rendered deaf and

while he was making his way to the shaft he

fell and knew nothing until he found himself at home

 

The pits, it seems, are littered with bones and corpses of miners or ghoulish memories of their grim witnessing –and not only of miners, but pit-ponies and horses as well:

 

…a horse lying dead directly in

the passage his head turned over his

shoulders as if in the falling he

had made a last effort to escape

 

Some accounts are composed more prosaically: ‘It came like a heavy wind it blew all the candles out and small/ coal about and it blew Richard Cooper down and the door upon/ him’. And the homes of so many miners’ families often reduced to funeral parlours:

 

As I knew many of the pitmen there at Haswell, I walked over

to see their families.

In the Long Row every house save one had its dead.

In one house five coffins – two on the bed, two on the dresser,

and one on the floor.

 

Latticed throughout this work are almost stream-of-consciousness passages:

 

collieries idle or working short

time the foundry gone the township

one little part of the wreckage

 

hard times together

criss-crossing of kinship and friendship networks

 

little to do and nowhere to go

 

gas-lit main street

 

bare bones of existence abject poverty multitude of meanings

 

exploited sweated underpaid health ruined maimed

 

It’s also important to note that Brandon Pithouse is not only a very oral but also visual work in terms of its layout on the page: many of the lines are double-spaced as if to give pause for breath between the lines or simply emphases to them; some passages are presented as poems, others as blocks of prose; it is a restless work which constantly shifts in shape on the page. Seed includes a striking quote from writer Sid Chaplin (OBE; 1916-86) who was himself from a Durham mining family and worked down the pit as a teenager before educating himself and then embarking on a fruitful literary career:

 

‘I have to guard myself against waxing poetic on the theme of this

great galaxy of villages each with the pit as its focal point, and each

nurturing a sort of semi-tribal community which in the light of

present-day urban society, seems almost a dream of paradise – a

sort of pitman’s Paradiso, safely set in the remote past. The

corrective is to remember the harshness, the filth, the disease,

above all the smells. At the same time, their achievements cry out

for celebration. Against all the odds, they and the folk who

inhabited them built up communities prepared for every

contingency, little societies of great strength and resilience and full

of vigour and humour.’

 

Chaplin’s literary gifts are tangibly in evidence in such glorious phrases as ‘galaxy of villages’ and ‘pitman’s Paradiso’. Some of Seed’s anecdotal histories are quite sublime vignettes:

 

6th December 1934 I met a man

trudging under the rain along a

 

muddy road a mirror the

omniscient narrator he was

 

small sturdy perhaps forty-five his

unprotected clothes were wet

 

an empty pipe in his mouth

out of habit he said

 

no tobacco in his pocket aye

and no prospect of affording any

 

Similarly to MacColl’s works Seed’s organises each topic associated with coal mining and so we move methodically through themes: from pit disasters to horse-keeping etc. The transcripts headed by the italicised name of the speaking miner as a script would be set out suggest verbatim transcription and it’s interesting to see how Seed uses line breaks and enjambments as if, presumably, emphasizing where the speaker pauses for breath between tropes, and this also gives the strong impression of the pithier and shorter verbal sentences more typical of the North of England:

 

Dennis Fisher

first job I ever had

I was placed into the stables to work

I could have been a horse-keeper if I

wanted to I liked the ponies

liked working with the ponies

and without those ponies

and we had two hundred of them in Chilton colliery

there wouldn’t have been

any coal production whatsoever

without the pit ponies

they were the ones that did all the work

taking the empty tubs in

to the coal-face for the coal-hewers

and bringing the full ones out

and it’s not

it’s not on the level

when you go down the mine it’s not level

you’re going up steep hills

and going down steep banks

it wasn’t very easy work for the

pit ponies

 

You can almost hear Fisher pause for breath abruptly at each line-break. The deceptive simplicity of some of the poems camouflage fine craftsmanship:

 

Some people have a feast every pay-day

and some have spiced cakes and having spent

their money will live poor towards the end

 

of the fortnight for three or four days

or more until payday come again perhaps

they’ve only potatoes and salt for some days

 

Seed’s unshowy prosodic craftsmanship places much oral emphasis in line breaks and spacing of lines to give greater emphases, as in ‘for Edmund Hardy’:

 

Occasionally the pit ponies

were brought out of the pit

 

and ran loose in two fields

 

again and again they ran

 

from one end to the other

 

And here:

 

I have seen men working in the pit all day

with only a bottle of water

and oatmeal in it

 

Everything down to toileting is detailed: ‘no flush toilets them days/ a fire hose/ to wash all the excrement down a pipe/ onto the Pit Dene’. There’s a poignant juxtaposition of the young men lost down the pit with those lost simultaneously in WWI:

 

in 1914

a miner was severely injured every two hours

and killed every six hours

like a soldier remembering a campaign he said

the lads in the ‘C’ drift where I was

in there

there’s only one left alive

all of them died young

Hank and all them

Hank collapsed and died

Wally Purvis Clemensey

all big hitters all gone

them’s the empty chair in the club

and they all worked in the same flat

 

One miner is found dead in a surprising manner but in a scene otherwise undisrupted:

 

the deceased fell out from between two props

 

there was no timber displaced

tub was on the way

pony standing quietly

 

Some moments in the book are quite oblique:

 

flaming place that’s safe in the pit?

 

Let the coal

Stay

There

 

One transcript, shaped into a poem on the page, relates the sad story of a pit boy killed on his first day:

 

the Friday night

there was a little laddie standing

at the pit gates

he asked a dark night he asked me

could he accompany me to Birtley

afraid of the dark you see

& I asked him who he was he says

I’ve left school today

Catholic school at Birtley

I’ve been to the colliery office

to get a job

he says me mother’s a widow

and I can get a job at the pit

so the manager’s told uz that I can

start on Monday

I says come on sonnie I says

you can go half way when I go

up Eighton Banks you can

go along to the huts where he was living in Birtley

canny little lad he was

 

so anyway I was chairman of the Lodge

and on the Tuesday following

never thought anymore about it

a man came from the pit to tell uz

that I had to go straight to the pit

there’d been a fatal accident

didn’t know who it was

so off I went I

left me breakfast

and went to Bewick Main Pit

it’s about a mile and a half or

two mile

here’s this little lad

lying in the ambulance house

head off

top

been caught with the girder

he was killed outright

second day down the pit

at the Catholic school on Friday afternoon

and got his leaving certificate at fourteen

killed eh

nice state of affairs

and a widow to start with

from the first world war

 

Another transcript, presumably from an audio interview, includes some phonetically emphasized Durham pronunciation and idiolect:

 

When it did come away me and Jimmy were sitting in the tail

end getting wa bait. And Bob R. and Tommy C. was the

officials.

Could hear this bloody noise. Looked alang the face. And there’s

coming alang ...

 

Within half an hour the whole Mullergit five hundred metres in

was flooded completely. Reet alang the face, reet alang the

tailgate.

 

And it took six weeks to pump down they found an under -

ground lake and also stone archways which wasn’t on the plans

at all and they hadn’t a clue where these archways came from.

There was a swally in one of the gates. And you had to jump on

the boat to get through the water.

 

We get a depiction of the physical handicaps caused by years working in the pits, bow legs (or rickets), rheumatism etc.:

 

bent double into the wind sometimes

they could hardly walk

 

shadowy figures in the twilight

 

they’d be soaking wet by the time they got to work

and it was a wet pit

soaking wet still when they got home

 

not a bit of wonder they’re all

rheumatic bent old men now

 

for all their strange appearance you knew

no harm would come to you

 

The constant wetness of clothes and bodies, an occupational dampness, continues as a theme:

 

soaked knee-pads rubbing into the bones

wet straps cutting into skin

 

he used to come home soaking wet

this is before the baths were built

and we were always drying clothes in front of the

fire soaking wet they’d be

as if he’d been out in the rain

 

And, presumably in Durham idiolect again:

 

Yell watta

day watta

red cankery poison watta

 

And a distinctly wet funeral for one deceased miner:

 

Geordie used to hate wet workin.

 

And the day of his funeral, it was during the Strike. It was chuckin

it down. We were at the gates of the cemetery, all wor badges on.

And an aad couple came along. ‘Huh. They’re picketin the

cimitiry noo, yer knaa. We cannot bury wor dead’.

 

And we followed the hearse up and Geordie’s coffin was. Water

actually came awer the top. It’s a wonder he didn’t wake up and

yell. He hated water. He wouldn’t get a wet note off Wilfy A.

 

There’s some deft alliteration and build up of images in the following poem:

 

In the Buddle Pit when the rope

broke or the cage left the conductors

all hands in the pit had to

seek their way to bank by an

 

old pit near Broomside we had to

travel and crawl through abandoned workings

broken-down roads blocked with old timber

falls of stone pools of water

 

puddles ankle deep and then ascend

on chain ladders amidst a stinking

stifling atmosphere of black damp

reaching Rainton bare-headed bruised and cut

 

The constant breathing in of coal dust inescapably produced black mucus:

 

We used to always have a saying

the lads at the end of the shift

you used to give a bit of a cough

 

and they used to say

gan on

get the blackuns up

 

mind it used to

be black phlegm it was

just dust man

 

One George Taylor relays:

 

I learnt a lot off old miners

these old miners

they were old men

at forty-two years old

 

aa’ve had to gan with the owd bugger

 

and they were the nicest fellas in the world

and that’s where I learnt the pit work

 

Seed serves up oral history as anecdote-cum-prose poem impeccably:

 

It’s a terrible thing, emphysema. When they give him stuff all

coal dust came up.

 

Well he died of it, and my father died of that as well and he was

first Bevin Boy in South Shields to say I’ll not go down the

pits. And they put him in Durham prison for six solid weeks

for being defiant. It was in the Gazette. He was just eighteen

years old.

 

And on the headlines it said ‘YOUTH. I WILL NOT GO

DOWN THE PITS’. Even his doctor who he was under, for

bronchial, he wouldn’t sign the certificate to give him to the

man – what do you know, the judge or whatever.

 

All me mother knew – the policeman knocked at the door and

he said: ‘Can I have a toothbrush and a change of clothing’.

 

She says: ‘What for?’

 

He says: ‘Ralph’s going straight up’.

 

He went to prison rather than go down the pit and when he’d

finished his six weeks he was a changed young lad. And the

day that he came out the feller knocked at me mother’s door

and said: ‘Your Ralph has to report to Whitburn Colliery and

start on Monday’. He made him go.

 

And again the Durham vernacular: ‘Ah man but aa was bad aa/ nearly smelt brimstone that time’. There’s a prose passage which details the horrendous physical scars on so many miners’ bodies, particularly their hands and ankles, areas exposed to the toxicity of coal dust for long periods of time, or symptoms of bacterial infections peculiar to mining:

 

History the history of bodies in pain impossible to button his

clothes lace his boots use a knife and fork hands are often

knocked skin abraded local throbbing or ‘beating’ pus will

track along the tendon sheaths most often to the back of the

hand inflammation considerable swelling in the centre of the

hand the skin will be hot and glazed inflammation of the

synovial membrane of the wrist joint and of the tendon sheaths

swelling and thickening around the affected wrist-joint

stiffness of the joint pain on movement and crepitations the

lesion may be erythematous or may consist of boils the lower

part of the legs and the forearms round the ankles at the upper

level of the clog or boot and also round the waist at the level of

the waist-belt coal dust is infected with staphylococci

 

We come upon a six line poem-vignette spoken by one Tom Lamb mid-sentence:

 

and me back was catching the roof

making scabs down yer back

called pitman’s buttons

 

it would heal over the weekend

and you would go in and

knock them off on the Monday

 

The term ‘pitman’s buttons’ shows how poetry crops up in the most unlikely of places. The defiant wit of the miners is everywhere in evidence as in a prose anecdote in Durham dialect from the Sixties in which some of them are discussing the closures of pits, which leads onto a punning punchline:

 

We were in the top deck. Well the top deck has a bar runs across

it, and you can sort of lean on it, well S. was leaning on it. And

our Len says: ‘Aye, aa knaa two bliddy mair they should shut’.

S says: ‘Aye what’s that?’

‘Thy bliddy ARM pits.’

 

Miner Dennis Fisher recounts through one of Seed’s poem forms how ‘each colliery was allotted a target/ for tonnage/ a tonnage target/ and we were all patriotic’ and how the miners always met their targets and looked ‘up at the pulley wheels/ to see if the flag was flying’ and how ‘we’d reach the target/ we reached the target every week/ till that flag/ was flying in tatters’. Then there is a particularly poignant trope:

 

and then we got a new flag

in 1947 when the collieries was nationalised

and at last the pits belonged to us

so we thought

 

And:

 

New Year’s Day was Vesting Day

miners paraded the streets behind the lodge banner and colliery

band

 

to Brandon ‘C’ pit head

before a large crowd the blue flag was hoisted

 

N.C.B. in white in the centre

and a board fixed to the winding engine house:

 

‘This colliery is now managed

by the National Coal Board

on behalf of the people.’

 

Some miners are less than nostalgic for their lifelong service to keep the nation heated:

 

Geordie Ord

if this pit were to close

I’d accept me redundancy tomorrow

nearly 44 years down the pit

it’s a fair good length of time

I haven’t got the figures but

I know the people in Craghead

I would think about two or

three years after they’re finished

retired at 65

nine out of every ten dies

simple reason is

their engine’s finished

they’ve worked

that hard

all their lives

 

There are many miners understandably embittered after lifetimes of hard graft:

 

just fancy

a man working 50 years down the mine

and he gets a piece of paper

a certificate (from the National Coal Board)

I’d have given ’em all a hundred pound

in fact some chaps doesn’t come and even accept it

& I’m damn sure I wouldn’t

and some hangs it up and put them in a frame

and some just throws it in the fire

and that’s where mine would go

 

Another verbal contribution by Geordie Ord is particularly poignant in its prophesying future unemployment and lack of comradeship for redundant miners and is beautifully sculpted into a poem by Seed:

 

Geordie Ord

everybody’s brothers when they’re down the pit

and that’s the sort of thing I many a time sit

what’s going to happen when the pits is finished

redundant

you haven’t got that sort of comradeship

you just sort of

automatic drift apart

 

Another anecdote relays something of the machismo of mining culture, not only at work but in leisure:

 

I saw a woman in there one day in the bar

at Kelloe Club it was Robert Shutt’s mother

 

and Harold Wilson jumps up straight on his feet

he shouts Mr. Secretary

there’s a woman in the bar here mind

 

It’s difficult to imagine the erudite and rather cat-like Harold Wilson expressing such manly proprietorship in a pub but then he was from a fairly lower-middle-class Yorkshire background prior to his grammar school scholarship and Oxford. Another anecdote gives a fascinating insight into social attitudes and one-upmanship among the mining class:

 

There’s too many working people think they’re middle class noo.

 

I can remember Jacky H. Can you remember Jacky H? At Westa.

I remember him. He used to flee all awer.

 

I used to say to him: ‘Jacky why do you flee all awer? You’re no

better thought of, man’.

He says: ‘I’m going to be colliery overman at this colliery and’,

he says, ‘I don’t care whose toes I stand on till I get there’.

 

Once he got the colliery overman’s job that was a joke gan’ round

the pit. His lass went to the shop and asked for a pair of

colliery overman’s pit socks.

 

One Bill McKie recounts how miners collected their wages in coins and how they ‘just put the money in the pocket/ when they got down the pit/ they hung their coat up/ and I never heard of anybody losing one penny’.

 

For me, perhaps the most striking example of Seed’s technique in sculpting poems from transcripts is the following –just look at how the poet makes music with the names of various medical conditions and symptoms by cramming them together for rhythmic effect in the second and third stanzas:

 

black crepe

hung on the pit banner at Durham Big Meeting

pitman’s stoop

making your way in‐bye on foot

breathing through dust

coming off like a black fog

driving the drift from the low seam

cutting coal with a windy pick

 

pneumoconiosis dermatitis nystagmus

bronchitis and emphysema

breathless wheezing and coughing

 

beat knee beat elbow torn or damaged knee cartilage

rheumatism hernias arthritis crutches empty jacket sleeves

his twisted frame in old age

 

The rhythm of the line ‘rheumatism hernias arthritis crutches empty jacket sleeves’ is particularly effective. Then in the fourth stanza there is great use of colour, image and alliteration:

 

black circles of coal dust round his eyes

small blue veins and blue-black

scars of coal dust cuts on his face

 

The crippling neurological degenerations engendered by the body-eroding onus of decades down the pits is graphically rendered:

 

You’d see them

in the village struggling to

walk they

lost weight quickly

 

gaunt and thin

the club I drank in

used to call it ‘Death Row’

ten miners sitting in a line

 

you saw it go from ten to nine

to eight to seven you can see

who were lucky

to be alive mind

 

but they can’t get the words out

can’t breathe properly

bent at right angles

 

Another retired emphysema-ridden miner relays how his wheeze is so loud it can heard from upstairs. Back in the early 19th century we hear of one winter when the pits were stopped:

 

Winter of 1810

every pit was stopped

without organisation or halls to meet in or strike pay or

savings

suffering from cold and hunger

 

delegates’ meetings were hunted out by the owners and

magistrates

mass meetings on the moors dispersed by troops

 

many arrests the Old Gaol and House of Correction at Durham

were so overcrowded some were held under armed guard in the

stables of the Bishop of Durham a Christian gentleman

 

families were evicted from their cottages and turned adrift in the

snow after seven weeks the terrible and savage pitmen starved

into submission

 

One poem-vignette details how the pitmen signed their names:

 

signing the bond

indicating their assent and signature

by stretching their hands

over the shoulder of the agent

touching the top of his pen

while he was affixing the cross to their names

 

In the following passage Seed brilliantly puts in some of God’s words to Adam post-Fall from Genesis as biblical interlocution punctuating a covetous voice in Durham dialect admitting to having broken in to the home of an official at the colliery, possibly his employer as hinted in the first interlocutory line which is possibly the opening of a sermon framed to keep miners in their place:

 

I was at your hoose last neet

You are resisting not the oppression of your employers

And myed meself very comfortable

but the Will of your Maker

Ye hey nee family and yor just one man on the colliery I see ye’ve

a great lot of rooms and big cellars and plenty wine and beer in

them which I got me share on

the ordinance of that God who has said

Noo I naw some at wor colliery that has three or fower lads and

lasses and they live in one room not half as good as your cellar

that in the sweat of his face shall man eat bread

I don’t pretend to naw very much but I naw there shudn’t be that

much difference

 

But the miner is of course right about his personal judgement of such disparities, even if his act of breaking in is more questionable. The rhyming of ‘said’ and ‘bread’ makes for a cadence to the last two italicised interlocutions which contrasts nicely against the more sinuous tongue of the miner.

 

Seed is rightly damning in his depiction of the oppression of miners and their families after pit closures, in the 19th century:

 

workhouse closed to miners the terrible and savage pitmen village

after pit village thousands of families evicted their dwellings taken

by strangers families and furniture handed to their door

 

camped out on the moors on the roadside in ditches beneath

hedges and in fields under the open sky of the wet fag-end of

summer 1844 children the bedridden at Pelton Fell a blind

woman of 88 evicted out into the rain

 

throwing their household goods out into the road colliery carts

loaded with furniture moved away into the lanes formed the walls

of new dwellings tops covered with canvas or bedclothes

 

dozens prosecuted for trespass bound hand and foot forced onto

treadmills to work off their fines

 

everywhere yeomanry militia dragoons regiments of foot troops

of cavalry marines a strong force of London police

 

bright glitter of the huzzar’s sabre point of the fusilier’s bayonet

 

Such utterly merciless militaristic suppression of the oppressed classes has uncanny echoes of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 –famously commemorated in Percy Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy– yet this is over twenty years later! I confess to finding the marked absence of commas particularly in the last line here puzzling; perhaps Seed has again here sculpted a poem out of a verbatim source, yet even so, one would think it would still be punctuated in parts –but it doesn’t really matter, it just means a lot of caesuras. Seed puts the local class divide in graphic perspective in the following slab of prose:

 

1st August 1844. Two days ago the foundation stone of a

monument was laid on Pensher Hill to the late Earl of Durham

in the presence of 30,000 persons the cost exclusive of the stone

which was given by the Marquis of Londonderry being £3,000.

If the Marquis thought this noble deed should be recorded in

history let it also be recorded that Henry Barrass was a working

man and had worked in his pits for 30 years and that he is in his

80th year with his wife in her 75th and they have been turned

out of their house.

 

Or were what I assumed the repercussions of pit closures actually those of strikes? It’s not entirely clear, but the following slab of prose suggest a strike has happened:

 

RESOLUTION: ‘Seeing the present state of things and being

compelled to retreat from the field through the overbearing

cruelty of our employers, the suffering and misery of our

families, and the treachery of those who have been their tools

during the strike, we, at the present time, deem it advisable

to make the best terms with our employers we can.’

 

There is a stark warning of the poverties and resentments that inevitably foment into violent revolution from the transcript of the Durham Coal Trade Arbitration, 1876:

 

‘If the workman is to be ‘rudely handled’ by natural laws, and

stripped naked by the laws of political economy, he may some day

be forced to seek for his protection outside of law altogether, and

this is what all thoughtful men should seek to prevent. And let not

the Owners forget themselves, history can repeat itself. Not hungry,

but hungered men know no law, or are amenable to no reason,

seeing that their famished state proclaims they have already past

the boundary, where neither reason or humanity govern the affairs

of life.’

 

Hunger, indeed, though a sapper of energies, can often, in a very primal sense, energise great aggression; after all, revolutions are normally fought on empty stomachs, at least, by the insurgents. The revolutionary sentiment continues:

 

Everybody followed Billy he used to call himself

a militant moderate

and to Billy it was a test of endurance

something we had to see through

like the Blitz

he wasn’t going to go back

nobody was going back as far as Billy was concerned

we’re gonna beat the bastards we’ll

endure

 

Seed intersperses much social document with shards of lyricism:

 

after dark Dawdon women

crept near their pitheap

when your children are

cold they swarmed over the

coal even the bairns’

sand-buckets were filled

 

We get a triptych of numbered prose poems recounting how the striking miners were intimidated by police and tempted with bribes by blacklegs and colliery officials:

 

1

The miner demanded to know what law gave anybody the right

to stop him going home he pointed at his blue uniform and

said this law there were no photographers present

 

2

I used to have a drawing pin in my glove and I used to poke

them in the chest

that’s enough from you you’d better behave

and the drawing pin used to stick in their chests and

they used to wonder what it was we can do all sorts of things

legality can be sorted out later

 

3

As you were driving past the pickets were shown fivers

and tenners at the windows brochures were waved at them there

were no photographers present

yeah there were them that waved fivers and tenners through the

window

 

Many police went undercover, pretending to be miners, possibly as agents provocateur:

 

I never thought I’d see scenes like this in Britain I never thought I’d

see what I’ve seen on the streets of Easington

we’re occupied we’ve been occupied by the police

police some of them

wearing black

uniforms with no markings

 

Seed includes this slightly ambiguous, beautifully phrased testament to what one assumes is the accumulative production of the coal pits over generations by prolific novelist, playwright and social commentator J.B. Priestley, writing in 1934:

 

‘I stared at the monster, my head tilted back, and thought of all

the fine things that had been conjured out of it in its time: the

country houses and town houses, the drawing rooms and dining

rooms, the carriages and pairs, the trips to Paris, the silks and the

jewels, the peaches and iced puddings, the cigars and old brandies,

I thought I saw them all tumbling and streaming out…’

 

Next we get some cold hard facts and figures in terms of those who profited from the sweat of the coal miners -it's enough to make one spit blood:

 

Annual royalties accruing to landlords in the Northern Coal -

fields:

 

Ecclesiastical Commissioners £370,000

Marquis of Bute (6 years average) £155,772

Duke of Hamilton (10 years average) £133,793

Lord Tredegar (6 years average) £83,827

Duke of Northumberland (6 years average) £82,450

Lord Dunravin (for 1918) £64,370

Earl Ellesmere £43,497

Earl Durham £40,522

 

Evidence to the Coal Industry Commission, 1919.

 

This is social document writ large. Then there is a fine lyrical miniature in Durham dialect which closes with something of a Balekian trope:

 

from Thornley Pit

low main best went to all the big houses in

London to the Palace

and Sandringham

I’ve seen tickets for the Palace

 

A’ the hardship toils and tears

it gies to warm the shins o’ London

 

That last Blakeian trope really is sublime. Seed brings us almost up to date with the post-Thatcherite hinterlands that are what remains of the collieries and their associated communities:

 

When Ellington closed in 1994 the world’s press turned out to

witness four ponies brought to bank for the last time and put

out to pasture. Cameras and crews came from everywhere to

present the event for television. Colin P., one of the pony

handlers, was interviewed leading the last pony from the cage.

 

The day before five hundred men were made redundant in one

of Europe’s worst unemployment black spots and nobody else

noticed.

 

Seed gifts us an intriguing and touching vignette in succinct prose which is worth excerpting in full:

 

I have a copy of Proletarian Literature of the United States,

published by Martin Lawrence in London in 1935. It was given

to me by an old Communist in Durham in January or February

1972. I think we met in the back seat of a car on the way to

deliver hot soup and propaganda to a miner’s picket line at a

power station somewhere in the Team Valley. I think it was

snowing. I’m sad and guilty that I no longer remember his name

but I remember his strong lined face under his cap. He must

have been over 70 years old. (I was 21 years old, an unemployed

recent graduate). And I remember the story he told. Of waiting

in the fields at night by the London to Edinburgh railway line

during the 1926 General Strike. Bundles of the Daily Worker

were thrown out of a passing express and spirited away by him

and his comrades to be distributed among the striking lockedout

pitmen in the area. I knew the spot: a triangle of ground

between Low Flatts Road, the main railway line and another line

that crossed over taking Swedish iron ore from Tyne Dock up

to the steel works at Consett. I’d sometimes played there as a

child when there were still pitmen on the windy fells west of

Chester-le-Street. There are none now. But I don’t know how the

book came into my hands. I’m not sure I ever met him again. I

think it got to me via somebody else, with a message. There is

nothing written inside the book. But I think I still know what

the message was. I don’t know the words, though I imagine I do,

across those gaps of time. Forty years; and eighty-seven years,

since the great lock-out of 1926. The book’s cover is faded green,

the spine is frayed and hanging off. Its 384 pages include the

writing of none of the leftist American poets active in the 1930s

whose work was then inspiring me – George Oppen, Charles

Reznikoff, Lorine Neidecker, Louis Zukofsky. And looking again

through its yellowing pages on a grey autumn afternoon in 2013,

there are few of its contributors I have ever read with any great

interest –Kenneth Fearing yes, and perhaps Kenneth Patchen

and Muriel Rukeyser. But I have taken this book with me to

every place I have lived since 1972 – seven addresses, which

doesn’t seem very many, and the last three in London, a long

way from the Lambton Worm and Low Flatts Road and the little

bridge over the railway line that still heads from King’s Cross

 

This chillingly clinical memo to, presumably, property speculators (there is, incidentally, a compendious bibliography and Notes at the back of the book which will elucidate sources):

 

Category D: Those from which a considerable loss of population

may be expected. In these cases it is felt that there should be no

further investment of capital on any considerable scale, and that

any proposal to invest capital should be carefully examined. This

generally means that when the existing houses become

uninhabitable they should be replaced elsewhere, and that any

expenditure on facilities and services in these communities which

would involve public money should be limited to conform to what

appears to be the possible future life of existing property in the

community.

 

The following vignette is clearly a verbatim transcript as its broken grammar indicates –it’s fascinating but distressing to see that dispossessed mining communities characterised their dispossession by compulsory purchase orders and subsequent decanting to other areas to live as being moved out to ‘the reservation’:

 

the house where I was born

number 21 Lower King Street

early 60’s we realised

something was going to happen

which was the

knocking down of the Lower Street houses

 

so we decided to

look for higher ground

we found a house up in High Thompson Street

not only had it the luxury of gas it also

had the luxury of electricity

which we’d never ever had

chance to get a television

 

in 1969

we got the compulsory purchase order

that we had to go the inevitable

to ‘the reservation’

had happened

 

Seed evidently trawled through old photographs in his research as well as having some shown to him from private albums of interviewees, as the following piece illustrates:

 

Ivy Gardner’s photographs

All these things

are my life

 

this one

was when they took the colliery down

that was me gran’s street

that’s the school

 

that was when me gran’s house was knocked down

 

The pit villages are depicted as ancient settlements: ‘This little village here/ it was a thriving Roman village when London was a/ grazing ground for Roman donkeys’. Yet there is a change of tack with the following quote from Sid Chaplin:

 

‘The villages were built overnight – the Americans are much

more realistic about mining than we are. They know it’s a

short-lived thing, relatively speaking. Even if there is fifty years

of coal – what’s fifty years? So they talk about mining camps,

we talk about villages, which is one of the oldest words in the

language. It means a permanent settlement. But most of the

Durham villages were, in fact, camps, and they were put down

as camps.’

 

This verbatim description of pit-village ruins: ‘Very strange seeing the remaining walls wall-paper sometimes/ peeling off to be able to see the allotments through the gaps all/ the rubble lying about it looked like a scene from the war’. Seed deals in fragments like a literary archaeologist: ‘Men would put their lamps face down in the dust and say, ‘I mind once ...’/

And you’d get a story’. This fascinating, mildly hilarious extract from a middle-class visitor to the Durham pit-town, possibly a social historian or Mass Observation scout (?):

 

If they had little time, they had less inclination to be examined,

and still less to answer the questions of a total stranger; and

even when their attention was obtained, the barriers to our

intercourse were formidable. In fact, their numerous mining

technicalities, northern provincialisms, peculiar intonations

and accents, and rapid and indistinct utterances, rendered it

essential for me, an interpreter being inadmissible, to devote

myself to the study of these peculiarities ere I could translate

and write ... Even where evidence could at last be elicited from

them, it was so intermingled with extraneous remarks,

explanatory of their opinions upon politics and public and

private affairs, foreign to the question addressed to them, that

it was essential that a large portion of it should be ‘laid out’ by

a process analogous to their own ‘separation’.

 

Here someone suggests a collating and organising of the recollections of still-living coal miners in the area for recording an oral history, something to last for posterity; possibly the prompt for Seed’s project:

 

Get those miners who can tell the brilliant stories and sit them

down and get them to tell the stories from the stories you make

something to house the stories something that’s right now that

will be able to be listened to and appreciated well beyond their

lifetime something like a vocal archive that could be listened to

people and appreciated time after might be another way to do a

commemoration plenty of miners still live here

 

Or, put another way, as an elliptical poem:

 

To record them and make a record

as a monument

is more of a monument

 

instead of a sculpture

the stories themselves

 

all those stories you heard

when you were young

go there’s no record

 

The following is a profound epitaph to the countless miners who perished in the pits:

 

In Durham Cathedral a miner’s lamp is kept lit each day a page

is turned in the book of remembrance colliery by colliery the

names of men and boys who died underground with their ages

and dates of their death marks of identity about which no man

had any say and each man has no say.

 

Next we have an imagistic lyrical poem by Seed:

 

From Ric Caddel’s Back Kitchen Window

 

Mile after mile the wet roads the weak light

Empty streets

In plenitude of nature

Windswept

In freezing rain in silence that

Familiar place

Dark hills huge clouds blank

Stone on these slopes the same

End from any source

 

A thousand stratagems

 

Vanishing into the air

 

Ego

 

Scriptor

 

[1981]

 

This is, unusually, followed by the poet’s contextualisation of the poem:

 

Ric was uneasy about the title of this poem I remember. He

wouldn’t come out and say so directly, of course. But I could

sense some reserve. The fact was, that from the back of Cross

View Terrace you could see a mile or so across to Langley Moor,

a pit village where my grandfather was a pitman for most of his

life and where I spent a good deal of time as a child. Ric and I

walked down that long steep hill a couple of times but we never

got as far as Langley Moor. A pub always intervened. By 1981,

when I drafted this poem, Ralph Seed had been dead for a

decade. And the world of my childhood seemed long gone. So

it was a poem about death and about the disappearance of the

past (and of the poet). And it was evoked by that particular

wintry landscape on an actual January day when I looked out of

that particular window. I also liked the several connotations of

the name ‘Cross View’. Now the death of Ric, who I knew for 30

years, forces me to read this poem in a different way. The words

on the page are the same. But it is now a different poem.

 

London 23 April 2003

 

Seed inter-textually introduces his next short poem:

 

This is to remember Ric Caddel – and now Bill Griffiths too:

 

Byker Hill and Walker shore

Collier lads for evermore!

Pit-laddie keel-laddie

Cold salt

Waters of the Tyne

Autumn waters of the

Tyne golden

Shadows in the last rays smoking

Till howdy-maw

 

What is particularly noticeable about the Seed has shaped these transcripts into verses on the page are the numerous enjambments that are all the more marked by the absence of punctuation/commas and the implicit caesuras where sentence clauses stop and start; Seed’s technique gives a –presumably deliberate– disjointedness to the lines:

 

forgotten spaces organized amnesia the activity of coal mining

erased beneath the surface of the visible rising mine-waters

entrail acidic salts they saturate voids

 

Romans left more traces in Durham County than the collieries

by the end of the twentieth century few traces of their

existence nothing commemorates places where several

generations thousands worked

 

and dozens sometimes hundreds died the sense of emptiness

experienced in a place which is losing its memory how to

know a place or represent something you can’t see that isn’t

there everything I don’t remember

 

we treat what is

as inevitable      we stand on the ground of accomplished fact

everything that is but

 

how did the accomplished fact become one become ‘is’

 

Following this rather fragmentary poem is this plaintive aside: ‘That’s all over County Durham though, isn’t it./ There’s not many winding gears left./ They’re all planted into little hills all over Durham’. Seed is accomplished at such spare and haunting lyrics:

 

coal dust it

settled on everything

between the smallest cracks

wedges that

pried apart the world

 

One of Seed’s most evocative and beautiful poetic flourishes is the following:

 

Place rather than dates events rolling upland low ridges valleys

with a strong east-west grain. Memories of others ancestral

beings gently rounded ridges occasional steeper bluffs. Frozen

for ever at a particular moment they sat down and became a

part of the place for ever they turned into the place.

 

Not for ever for as long as

 

as anyone remembers then

drift off without leaving

 

any residue

 

‘We’ like smoke over the fields like rain

 

Fragments of heathland survive on infertile acidic soils.

 

In the beginning they went onto the spoil heaps picking out

the coal until there was no coal left then down in Bloemfontein

 

woods they cleared the soil away and they started working this

seam so we had fires during the 1926 lockout.

 

Ancient oak woods in steep-sided denes on the banks of rivers

and streams an asymmetry the landscape a waxing gibbous

moon high in the east at sunset the owl of Minerva

 

takes flight only as night falls

 

Seed continues in this wistful lyrical mode:

 

Everything that was lived

experience has

moved away

into

 

heritage reclamation landscape

 

blocked drift-mouths ramps collapsed tunnels disused railway

lines viaducts old coke

ovens spoil heaps slurry lagoons

 

new grassy fields smooth green slopes not quite

real among rolling upland ridges and valleys

 

dry stone walls thorn hedge

straight enclosure roads

 

immediacies of an ordinary afternoon where

something happened

 

times of the southern dynasties where strikes and closures it

was

always ganna gan

 

The alliterations and assonances in the following lines works extremely well making the lines almost tangible:

 

oscillate on a semi-tone hear both notes at once a chord

unresolved or archaeology the notion of strata lines edges

blurring edges discontinuity where/when one layer becomes

another each residual layer containing information

 

fragments left from human occupation left in a midden

sludge dregs the lees

 

That Seed can excavate poetic turns of phrase from geological data is something to commend:

 

The true coal formation consists principally of extensive parallel

strata of coal, covered by strata of shale, containing impressions

of vegetables, and not unfrequently remains of freshwater shell

fish and animals.

 

The strata are frequently intersected by cracks or breaks, which

are filled with gravel or sandstone, and sometimes with a sink

or bending, locally denominated troubles.

 

There’s a verse made entirely of place names, presumably pits, which is arranged in an almost sing-song manner (I’m unable to format the text as it appears on the page):

 

Kimblesworth Waterhouses Witton Wham

Pelaw Pelton Stargate Plain

Toronto Hobson Phoenix Drift

Lambton Waldridge Tudhoe Mill

Quaking Houses Langley Moor

Randolph Hutton Tanfield Lea

Brancepeth Cragheed Clara Vale

Lumley Harraton Chester Moor

Chopwell Cornsay No.1

Wingate Ushaw Herrington Esh

Shildon Beamish Sacriston Lintz

Blackhall Edmondsley Framwellgate

Handen Hold Trimdon Grange Wheatley Hill

Dragonville Hamsteels Dean and Chapter

Eden Brandon Pity Me

 

The final poetic flourish of this long and amorphous work, which is difficult to categorise, closes on a hauntingly nostalgic note:

 

‘Nana and grandad’s at Langley Moor’

the place was called

 

from Chester the 42 for Crook

off at the Boyne up Front Street

on the left past Brandon Lane

 

can’t remember the number

 

listening you

cannot see how it was

 

pictures photographs shadows

changing on the wall

 

tangle of time frames unpainted

sunlight and it’s still there yes

 

a Saturday morning

 

a few thousand Saturdays ago

 

Seed’s polished and succinctly written Postscript serves in itself as a slice of social document and is a fascinating read. Here he contextualises his own familial and ancestral associations with mining in Durham:

 

I’ve never been down the pit. My grandfather Ralph Seed –

pronounced Rarf – worked down the pit around Brandon and

Langley Moor for most of his life. So did his eldest son, uncle

Jim. I remember him telling me how he left school on the Friday

afternoon and some pit manager said to his dad, ‘your lad’ll be

starting on Monday?’ And he did. My father was marched off to

Germany at the end of the war and avoided the pit. His mother,

my grandmother, Evelyn Nolan, was from several generations

of mining stock too. I found her brother, Cornelius (Con) Nolan,

listed as an accident victim at Bowburn colliery in 1940. I think

I remember Uncle Con’s amazing curly eyebrows and his wiry

frame and deep voice (some 20 years later) – or was that Uncle

Henry? My other grandfather, my mother’s father, was too

damaged by his experiences in the First World War trenches,

which got him the Military Medal and chronic bronchitis, to

work down the pit. But his father John Carroll was a pitman. So

was his father in turn, also called John Carroll, who had escaped

from Ireland as a child in the 1840s. He was a pitman around

Wigan in the 1860s and 1870s and later around Durham. My

last sighting of him is in the 1901 census, listed as a retired hewer

and widower, living with his daughter Margaret (Moore) and

her husband in the little pit village of Kimblesworth. I do not

remember his son, my great-grandfather John Carroll. I was two

when he died, in his early 90s, but my mother told me several

times how he’d held my hands to help me to walk as a stubborn

impatient toddler. I think it was through him that I was called

John.

So for what it’s worth, I can claim several generations of

Durham coal-mining stock on both my father’s and my mother’s

side, as of course can hundreds of thousands of others today,

scattered around the globe. And coalmining was a major part of

the environment in which I was brought up in the 1950s and 60s

around Chester-le-Street. Fathers of school-friends were pitmen,

including Jock Purdon and Joe Donnelly. And my wife’s father,

John McTaff, was a Durham pitman too. But all this is by-theby.

You don’t need to be of coal-mining stock or to have worked

down the pit or live in Durham County to write about Durham

and coalmining. These do not necessarily qualify you; nor does

their absence necessarily disqualify you.

 

We then get Seed’s own description of the conscious architecture of Brandon Pithouse, which reveals the painstaking process:

 

And this isn’t biography, auto- or otherwise. What I have done

in this piece of writing is to trawl through hundreds and maybe

thousands of pages of printed sources – books, parliamentary

reports, newspapers, magazines. I’ve also worked on source

materials via many websites. I’ve been particularly keen to listen

to the voices of miners – and their families – and so I’ve

transcribed bits of recorded interviews for radio and television,

some going back as far as the 1960s. From all this material, a

tiny fraction of what is available about the Durham coalfield and

its workforce, I have selected bits and pieces that attracted my

attention. I had no plan, no idea of what I was looking for,

though obviously my selections were partly determined by

preconceptions – some conscious, some unconscious. I then cut,

rewrote and spliced this material together in various forms –

prose, verse of various kinds, with punctuation, without

punctuation, arranged on the page in various ways. And with

no outline or narrative or theme in my mind I shuffled and

reshuffled this material: ellipsis, juxtaposition, disjunction,

parataxis, fragmentation...

 

Seed then explains how he added his own poetic interpretations and interpolations throughout the text:

 

I was conscious that my pursuit of material here was not the

same as a historian’s. I was reading in a more haphazard (and

un-disciplined) manner. My focus was wider. My attention was

different. A more striking difference was that I sometimes

rewrote my sources and interjected material of my own. This is

a mortal sin for the disciplined historian who has to treat sources

as sacrosanct. It’s like doctoring evidence in a court of law or

lying in the witness box. In my case, I was not revising my

sources to fit a thesis since I had no thesis. I was merely

interested in making the writing sharper, crisper, more precise,

or at least more interesting. Or perhaps I was just enjoying

cutting and pasting, like a child sitting on the floor brandishing

shiny scissors surrounded by scraps of bright paper. Having said

that, I did treat my sources with respect and I have invented

nothing. (Note to librarian: please do not shelve in the ‘Fiction’

section.) I was particularly keen to respect the language of my

oral sources and in places the writing follows exactly, or as

exactly as I can hear, the pauses and incoherence of the speaking

voice –though sometimes it doesn’t. And where I could I have

usually identified the speaker, as found in the source I’d used.

Serious works of history provide a bibliography precisely so that

other historians can examine these sources, check for misuse or

selective use of evidence. There was no scholarly rationale for

doing this here, but I have listed below a few sources I have used.

 

Oral history, or history altogether, and its presentations, are things that Seed has thought a great deal about:

 

It is almost half a century since Hayden White criticised

historians for turning their backs on the literary innovations of

modernism.

 

‘There have been no significant attempts at surrealistic,

expressionistic, or existentialist historiography in this century

(except by novelists and poets themselves) … It is almost as if

historians believed that the sole possible form of historical

narration was that used in the English novel as it had developed

by the late nineteenth century.’ (‘The Burden of History’ (1966),

in Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural

Criticism, (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1978),

pp. 43-4.)

 

Despite one or two exceptions in recent decades, the charge is

still probably fair. One major exception is provided by Walter

Benjamin and if there is one historical work that Brandon

Pithouse has some elective affinity to, it is his Arcades Project,

his massive unfinished historical assemblage of materials from

nineteenth-century Paris.

 

‘The first stage in this undertaking will be to carry the principle

of montage into history. That is, to assemble large-scale

constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut

components. Indeed, to discover in the analysis of the small

individual moment the crystal of the total event.’ (Walter

Benjamin, The Arcades Project, translated by H. Eiland and K.

McLaughlin, (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), p.931.)

 

Had I world enough and time I would write at greater length

about Benjamin’s work, about its resistance to the conventional

historian’s strategy of scholarly inventory and interpretation,

about its use of montage – and about the powerful creative

matrix out of which it emerged in the 1920s, a matrix that

included Cubism and Surrealism, the film theory and practice

of Eisenstein and Vertov, Kafka and Proust, James Joyce’s Ulysses,

and Georg Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness.

 

The modernist influence in Seed’s experimental montage approach to social document is palpable throughout Brandon Pithouse. Though Seed’s description of his book-length work is loose and ambiguous he seems more definite about what it is not:

 

Brandon Pithouse doesn’t claim the status of ‘History’. But nor,

on the other hand, does it aspire to ‘Poetry’ – the territory of

other great and jealous powers. It is not a long poem nor is it a

collection of poems. It is an investigation of what can be done

with source materials. It asks questions of the reader. Some

sections have punctuation, some don’t. Some are clear and

straightforward pieces of prose broken up into lines or fairly

conventional free-verse forms. There is much use of oral

testimony which is represented in lines. Others are different in

style. I wanted to keep moving, challenging myself and the

reader to ask — what are these patterns on this white surface,

how do I make sense of them? And yet the content is generally

clear and made up of contemporary eye-witness accounts and

real events. The formal presentation is meant to draw attention

to itself as words on paper – but at the same time it is not trying

to ‘aestheticise’ painful realities, nor distort for trivial literary

purposes the voices and the experiences of real people.

Something of the cold light of the real, of specificity and

contingency, of the pain of physical labour and the suffering of

real people, – ‘the cruel radiance of what is’, James Agee called it

– filters through these texts I hope. When I trim down some

testimony and then break it up into lines I see (and hear) things

I hadn’t seen (or heard) before. Maybe an open-minded reader

can too? I discussed some of these questions in the ‘Afterword’

to John Seed, Manchester: August 16th & 17th 1819, (Inter -

capillary Editions, London 2013).

 

So perhaps we might say in some senses Brandon Pithouse is a work of ‘found poetry’ –that is, poetry found in, and formed from the various voices and written sources painstakingly pieced together and then fragmented to make the work as a whole. Seed seems to say as much here:

 

Despite exalted notions of the author, writers work with the

materials they find around them and try to hammer out some

kind of new thing with bits of discursive wood lying around and

rusty nails and old string and glue. …

 

As for the filmic quality to the text, Seed does indeed use the analogy of the visual documentary:

 

What I am doing here might even be compared to a film-maker

creating a documentary out of other people’s bits of film and

sound recordings, interspersed with some slight commentary.

Editing as creative act! And this makes me think of another

great unfinished project: Eisenstein’s film of Marx’s Capital,

a project stimulated by his reading of Joyce’s Ulysses at the end

of the 1920s. See also Alexander Kluge’s monumental 9-hour

film: News from Ideological Antiquity: Marx/Eisenstein/Capital

(2008). So perhaps Brandon Pithouse is really a set of notes

for a film that can never be made – and a footnote to Chapter

10 of Volume 1 of Marx’s Capital.

 

That’s certainly a very compelling way of putting this book into some kind of broader literary and polemical framework –though if just the equivalent of a footnote, it is a very finely fashioned and poetically expressive footnote. Seed continues to speculate to the close of his accomplishedly composed prose Postscript:

 

History? Poetry? Film script even? In the end these questions

don’t matter very much, though they could take us along

interesting detours on a dull afternoon. Perhaps I could just say

that when Ezra Pound’s Cantos, William Carlos Williams’

Paterson, Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems and Charles

Reznikoff ’s Testimony collided with Walter Benjamin’s

Arcades Project and the first volume of Marx’s Capital and

the newly published History and Class Consciousness of Georg

Lukacs, in pubs and CIU clubs around Durham in the early 1970s

this was what resulted – though it took another forty years to

gather up some of the pieces and try to put them together.

 

Those forty years have been worth the wait for this fascinating poetic social document-cum-oral history to finally hit daylight. It certainly deserves its place in the modernist canon of mixed-genre poetics alongside the recently critically-disinterred works of, for example, Marxist poet and broadcaster Joseph Macleod (1903-84), particularly his film script-cum-long poem, Script from Norway (1953).

 

But Brandon Pithouse also belongs to the canon of British proletarian literature and in that and other senses discussed bears comparisons with the works of Ewan MacColl. I think that this book would work even more effectively on audio with different voices –ideally authentic Durham ones– threading throughout, like a play for voices or oral poem-cum-documentary, again, in the MacColl tradition of the radio ballad. But it is, as touched on, also a very visual work, and so its many and varied techniques are to be appreciated on the page; a complementary recording of the book would aurally seal the already evident importance and accomplishment of Brandon Pithouse.

 

Alan Morrison © 2017